My new colony had been in place since May and was busy thriving on the many new blooms, especially wildflowers, that had begun to appear in the meadows and along side the roadways of West Bolton. I had been excited at the prospect of possibly drawing off my first batch of honey in August, and was boldly promising friends that soon they would be sampling "West Bolton Gold".
Over the past few days the first sense to be tantalized as I approached the hive was smell. Honey odour is unmistakable, it's strong sweet emission fills the air, signaling that a honey run is in full swing. Watching the bees at work is also fascinating. By the sheer volume of workers, many thousands, that gather nectar and pollen and land back at the hive you are in awe of the effort this team is putting into making the hive grow and thrive.
This morning it wasn't the smell that came to me first, it was the sight of destruction. From 20 meters away I could see that the hive had been toppled and that the area was strewn with broken frames. Since I only wear my beekeepers suit when I am occasionally inspecting inside the hive, I was not prepared to approach the seething fury of bees that lay ahead of me. In fact a lone guard bee flew right at me and stung the top of my foot.
I retreated in shock. My first thought was that all was lost, and that I would simply leave the remaining bees to fend for themselves and start over next summer. I returned home dejected and resigned to the tragedy that had befallen the colony. I wanted to share my experience with my fellow beekeepers, so my first call was to Jack Walker, a founding member of the West Bolton Beekeepers Co-op.
Jack's cheery voice over the past few months always greeted me with " So how are the bees doing?"
The answer this morning was a terse," The hive has been wiped out, something has had a honey snack!"
Jack immediately replied, "Get suited up, I will be over in five minutes. We are going to work."
I did as instructed, not quite able to understand why we would be racing over to the site of a decimated bee colony. Armed with all the beekeepers equipment available, smokers, hive tools, and new frames, etc.. we marched into the maelstrom of devastation, while thousands of bees came to greet yet another enemy.
The scene was chaotic; as the noise of angry bees filled our ears we looked over the scene of carnage. Smashed frames, some with brood stock, and many filled with golden honey lay scattered over the ground. Instantly we knew it had been a bear, as deep slash marks could be seen on the boxes and frames. Many frames had bees still clinging to their shattered remains, while huge clumps of buzzing workers clustered around cells where the queen had laid new eggs. Many dead bees littered the ground around the hive, these having tried in vain to stop the invader by stinging and then dying.
Jack quickly explained, " We are OK, the queen should be in the centre of one of the massive bundles that has formed. They are protecting their queen to the last bee."
We set up a new hive and I watched in amazement as Jack, with the aplomb of Red Adair, the famous Texan oil fireman, deftly picked up shattered frames and with a quick snap over the intact box shook the bees down into their new-fashioned home.
We then placed any frames filled with honey or eggs that we could salvage into the replacement hive, put back the cover, and backed away. An extraordinary event then occurred. As if by magic, or a magnetic attraction, the bees that had not been dropped in the new hive, immediately started to crowd toward the entrance to the hive.
" We've got the queen back in", beamed Jack, " just look at the colony's instinctive response to protect her. We've done all we can do for the time being, let's come back in a few hours."
With that we retreated from the area, skeptical about the reoccurrence of another attack by a hungry and fearless bear, who couldn't be too far away, licking his wounds, if any, and paws in delight.
The message should have been clear enough; move the bees to a new site for their protection. I checked the hive several more times that day and felt satisfied that with extra large rocks on the covers and the bear getting it's fill, we would be OK. Wrong.
The next morning at dawn, the same thing. Once again the hive had been trashed, so the emergency call went to Jack. This time we had Jack's sister along, all suited up and ready to record the mess with a camera. We had no trouble in locating the clump with the queen and for the second time gave the bees a new start.
Twice bitten, now shy we planned our strategy. At dusk that evening we would move the entire colony away from the marauding and now honey craving bear. Our plan was to put screening at the entrance to the hive so that the bees that had gone in for the night would be trapped until the next morning.
At dusk I suited up and went to pick up the hive. When I arrived there were so many bees flying around the entrance, that I decided to come back when it was darker, so that I wouldn't loose too many workers.
At ten that evening I arrived back to do the relocation. The head lights of the car shone into the clearing and gave a ghostly sight to the obliteration of the hive. Too late! . Probably minutes before our hungry black bear had beaten us to it. This time with so little honey left, the bear had vented his anger by dragging most parts of the hive into the woods and had smashed the honeyless frames to bits. There was nothing to do except hope that the remaining bees, now at minimal strength, could hang on until the morning.
For the third morning in a row a new box with frames was arranged in the middle of the yard, the grass now turned into slick mud when the bear had tramped around for so many visits.
The bees had not fled, but remained clinging together, their numbers diminished to a tenth of what they had been two days previously. I shook what small clumps I could find into the hive with trepidation that the queen was among her protectors. There was no mass movement to the hive, as a more resigned and lethargic inactivity with the remaining bees left me feeling that all was lost and their future bleak.
At seven that night I went back with the screen and closed up the hive. Many bees remained outside, but I couldn't risk those inside with the queen to any more attacks. Off we went to a newly prepared location near by my house on a small island and hopefully bearproof. We gave those remaining a large pail of feed, sugar and water, to help them get re-established. I think with a little luck they should make it through the winter.
They are an amazing species. Instinctive to preservation is their reason for existence. Cooperation and teamwork are their tools.
Sacrifice for the good of the whole. Community in helping build a safe environment for their next of kin.
At these moments we understand community, helping one another, giving yourself up for the good of the whole. Perhaps as human beings we could do better to find our own individual fulfillment in the success of the community.
A special thanks to Jack and his perseverance; the colony will survive to see better honey filled days.
August 3, 1997
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